We wanted to find out how a distillery can become more sustainable without greenwashing or compromising the quality of its spirit. So we asked a few brands who do it best. This is what they had to say.
The distilleries featured in this article make booze with a purpose. Spirits that taste good while limiting impact on the planet. The process to make drinks puts strain on the environment. From the vast amount of water used, the energy required for production, and the logistics of packaging and distribution: the drinks industry has a responsibility to account for its waste.
And plenty of people are trying. However, there are pitfalls. Some brands have been accused of greenwashing, ignoring the point of sustainability in favour of PR. While others are in danger of spending so much time making sure the drink is green that they forget to make it good.
But some have actually managed to make a difference and do so without compromising quality. So we decided to talk to those distilleries who are doing just this. And I confirm that they do indeed make delicious spirits. Anyway, let’s meet them.
Meet our sustainable brands
Two Drifters is the world’s first carbon-negative rum producer, a project spearheaded by husband and wife Russ and Gemma Wakeham in Devon. Russ has a background in sustainability chemistry with a focus on carbon capture, storage, and turning CO2 into useful products while promoting alternative energy sources that are low carbon. “Knowing what I know, we couldn’t set up a business in good conscience without having sustainability at the very core of what Two Drifters is about,” he says.
Cooper King Distillery, located in Sutton-on-the-Forest, York, was founded by partners, Abbie Neilson and Chris Jaume. It produces England’s first carbon-negative gin and runs on 100% green energy. “We believed from the outset that drinking good spirits needn’t cost the Earth. On our adventures to Australia (from which the idea for the distillery was born) we were lucky enough to experience some of the world’s most beautiful places, though we also witnessed destruction which opened our eyes to the damage being done. We wanted to create and preserve these places for future generations to enjoy too, which meant creating a product with minimal environmental harm,” says Juame.
Arbikie, meanwhile, is a Scottish producer located on the east coast of Angus that grows the ingredients for its products on its estate, with water even coming from its own underground lagoon. “As farmers and distillers, it was natural that we’d adopt a field-to-bottle approach to distilling, choosing the options that were best for the lands that surround us. The plan is to combine the best of farming and traditional distilling and innovation with sustainable considerations,” says Gareth Jones, brand manager.
How they implement sustainable measures
Each boasts a considerable amount of environmental policies, too many really to write down in one feature. So we’ll give you the cliff notes. At Two Drifters, for example, a renewable energy tariff runs the all-electric equipment, including 100% electric vehicles, charged with zero-emission energy to limit carbon emissions. Every emission is calculated, even down to the search engine used on their laptops. Where this can’t be removed (shipping, agriculture), Climeworks steps in to use its signature process of capturing CO2 from the air, turning it into stone, and storing it underground. The list goes on. A massive recycle water system is employed. All waste molasses is donated to a local farmer. Flexi-hex is used for shipping website orders. As are biodegradable tamper seals by viscoseclosures and Splosh cleaning products. The distillery is even rebranding at the moment and will relaunch in the summer with thinner, British-made glass bottles.
Cooper King also accounts for its carbon use, with every bottle of Dry or Herb Gin removing 1kg more CO₂ than it produces (learn more in the band’s first report). It’s also the producer of the first gin in Europe with a 1% for the Planet accreditation (giving 2.5% of gross gin sales to the YDMT) and plants one square metre of native broadleaf UK woodland for every bottle sold. In 2018 Cooper King introduced the country’s first distillery gin refill scheme and raw materials are sourced locally where possible (all barley and wheat used are 100% Yorkshire grown) to support English farmers and reduce food miles. No waste is sent to landfill. The brand also distills using innovative rotary evaporators which run on a fraction of the energy required for a traditional gin still and, thanks to a closed-loop cooling system, saves 26,000 liters of water annually. Lightweight, recycled glass is also used, as is a clever origami-style cardboard postal box that has eliminated the need for plastic packing materials.
Arbikie actually makes what was the world’s first climate-positive gin (meaning that it avoids more carbon dioxide emissions than it creates), Nàdar, using peas. They require no synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, meaning there’s no negative environmental impact on waterways, and soils. This, combined with carbon offsetting measures, means each bottle has a carbon footprint of -1.54 kg CO2e. Photovoltaic panels on the roof provide solar power, honey is produced by local bees and the primary waste product from distilling is recycled wherever possible as feed for cattle.
How can others follow suit?
Each one of these distilleries isn’t open about its methods purely for marketing, but because there’s a genuine desire for people to be able to mirror the process. “However we make our rum, that’s our business. Everything we do from a sustainable point of view people are free to copy,” says Gemma Wakeman. The distillery is contacted frequently and their advice is to “think CO2 before you buy anything”. This determines the type of equipment that you buy, the type of building that you go into, the type of cars that you use to transport your product. “We acknowledge that there’s a challenge retro-fitting,” says Russ. “But if you are huge, small differences can have a massive impact; much bigger than we could ever have. That’s crucial”.
Cooper King thinks along similar lines. “Start small and ask questions,” says Jaume. “Reach out to us and others in the industry genuinely making a difference. We regularly sit on sustainability panels and it’s a great way to benefit from the panelists’ combined years of research and learn from their mistakes before starting on your own path”. He also recommends reaching out to universities. “Student research projects are a great way to explore and evaluate new sustainable initiatives. They cost nothing except time, support student careers, and result in valuable data”.
Jaume also believes in making the most impactful changes first: moving to a 100% renewable energy provider, reducing waste, and evaluating packaging options. “Make informed decisions based on meaningful data, carry out a life cycle assessment of your business, and don’t be afraid to invest money”.
Is the industry doing enough?
All three brands acknowledge that progress is being made in this area, but that there is still a long way to go. “I would say as a collective we have barely scratched the surface, but there is a growing global sustainable spirits movement,” says Jones.
Jaume agrees, commenting that while there are many large multinationals investing heavily in new technologies and changing their practices, “sustainability is viewed as a consumer trend by others who seek to benefit from high-value marketing campaigns in the absence of meaningful action. We need a fast, global shift towards becoming circular, adopting practices that enhance – rather than degrade – the environment and consumer education to reduce the negative effects of greenwashing”.
Gemma concurs. “I just did a LinkedIn general poll asking ‘if on a drinks menu in a bar it had a sustainability drink. would you be tempted to drink it over the alternative’ – half the people said ‘no’! Lots see it as a gimmick. It is a buzzword at the moment. That’s why credibility and transparency are so important. You can forgive consumers for being confused and not believing”.
How to avoid greenwashing
There are some products, however, that enter the market solely to tick the ‘green’ box and superficially boost environmental credentials. “Campaigns are littered with trending hashtags, impacts are overstated and sweeping claims are not evidence-backed. All the while, the rest of the business continues with no self-scrutiny or desire to minimise harm to the planet,” says Jaume.
“It undermines the wider understanding of sustainability and erodes trust between brands and consumers,” adds Jones. Arbikie ensures that everything it does is backed up by scientific evidence. For Two Drifters too, that education is key. It’s in the process of updating its website to include data on CO2 figures, for example. “It’s all about understanding. We say if CO2 was a colour and people could see it leaking from their computer they would be more considerate with how they use it,” says Gemma.
The three distilleries all make a point of acknowledging that they are constantly challenging themselves, consulting experts, inviting constructive criticism, locating weaknesses, and taking positive action to shore them up.
Ensuring your booze is sustainable and tastes good
None of this will mean much, however, if nobody wants to buy your drink because it doesn’t taste good. At the core of each of these distilleries is a process that ensures that flavour is not lost while trying to be more green. “It’s all about ingredients for us. Everything is planted, sown, grown, and harvested on-site and we are in the enviable position of being able to oversee impeccable standards every step of the way, from field to bottle. Our sustainable, green ethos doesn’t impact the flavour, texture, or colour of any of our products,” Jones explains.
Russ also makes an interesting point for those starting out by recognising that, because sustainability runs through everything they do, it doesn’t have an impact on the distilling process. “It’s already built-in to everything we do, so we don’t have to go out of our way to account for it. We don’t want to be seen as ‘an eco rum’, because if we’re not a credible rum distillery it doesn’t matter what we do – we need people to like our rum. That’s why we spend so much work making our rum from scratch so it was as unique as our business processes”.
What does the future hold?
Looking forward, it’s promising to see how much power we have as people. Brands ignoring environmental responsibilities can’t hide from informed consumers. And distilleries actually have huge potential to be a means for change, because products like the one featured in this article demonstrate that creating a lasting product with sustainability at the core of the brand is an effective way of spreading the message. “When he was an academic, people didn’t really want to talk to him about what he did. Everyone now wants to talk to Russ about CO2,” Gemma says.
She is also passionate that the focus should be to promote a “bright, lively, vibrant sustainable future” and doesn’t want the message to be all doom and gloom. Jaume is also optimistic about the potential for change. “There’s an increasing appetite for an industry-wide, concerted effort to drive positive change. There are many of us already doing this and enjoying the benefits, so get cracking by taking ANY small step in the right direction!